I ran a workshop session at the East of England Local Government Association annual coaching conference in Cambridge last Friday. It was a superb event, with a well balanced programme and an enthusiastic group of people in attendance.
I’m publishing my slides along with the notes from my session, which looked at the ways in which coaching can be used to adjust climate at team level and thence refresh and revise the management culture of an organization.
I began with an exercise to engage the room and start us thinking of the limitations that exist in our current approaches to work, the workplace and our workforces…
In pairs, participants were asked to describe the next 90 days in terms of the organizational expectations of the teams in which they work…and to outline what they saw as their specific contribution to meeting those group expectations. The group was given ten minutes or so to consider this.
In plenary, we explored how that changed focus – short rather than long timelines, collective rather than positional focus – felt.
The positive views expressed herein helped us to appreciate that work and the workplace are both very different now – and hence require a fresh and humanistic approach to motivating and managing people in each and every context.
From my perspective, I argue that there are six key issues in respect to this changed context that need to be acknowledged and incorporated into thinking about management in the 21st Century.
PACE AND CHANGE IN THE MODERN WORKPLACE
Technological change and the globalized economy have led to a shift towards a 24/7 focus in terms of economic activity.
This increased velocity also speaks to a new level of complexity in human organizing and production, one where many of the challenges we face are “wicked problems”…and the very idea that we can plan and schedule for a medium- or long-term future seems even less plausible than it did when the age of certainty convinced us that leadership practice was simply a matter of intended cause and anticipated effect.
In the NHS, this is best exemplified by a cursory engagement in a simple PEST analysis…and a recognition that demand for services consistently increases by 4% p.a. and that technological and scientific advance is constant, in terms of activity and impact.
DELIVERY THROUGH COLLECTIVE EFFORT
The notion of the heroic individual – the Stakhanovite who delivers their quota and then some, on the basis solely of their personal efforts – has always been a political rather than an authentically economic one.
That said, we continue to work with leadership concepts that are individualized and charismatic – whether in the Board room or the football ground – and many of our workplace practices (despite the discursive shift to a more collective orientation) continue to privilege the individual and not the team. For example, most management supervision takes place on a one to one basis and our approach to talent management, with its exclusive pools and cadres of high potential staff, underscore this.
Yet, in health care – and most human services – team effort is central to the delivery of safe and high quality care to patients and very little is exclusively about the singular efforts of one individual practitioner. But our HR processes (and attitudes) do not reflect this.
PERSISTENCE OF SILO WORKING
In health and social care, the professional and occupational striations of our sectors have cross-hatched our organizational forms with negative impact in regards to connectivity and effectiveness.
This is as true within teams as between teams. The relatively insulated character of most people’s workplace practice makes team working more difficult than it needs to be.
PSYCHOLOGY OF PERFORMANCE
There is a growing volume of persuasive material that underscores how our traditional views of performance and its maximization are faulty. This develops out of the shift to positive psychology – in particular to the development of the notion of “flow” – but is now apparent in Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets and David Rock’s discussions of the SCARF model, around Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.
Certainly, you might still get away with old ways of extracting work from people amongst workforces that are socially and economically marginalized – discussions around working conditions at the Sports Direct warehouse seem illustrative of this point – but it will certainly not help morale, productivity or discretionary effort.
MAKING ENGAGEMENT MEANINGFUL
There is a vital distinction to be made between staff involvement and staff engagement. Many organizations imagine that working effectively alongside and through their workforce is merely a communicative initiative, delivered through “listening events”, town hall meetings and two way team briefings. That is important, of course, although we should never underestimate the ways in which people in an organization process activity like this.
Authentic staff engagement – often preached, rarely practised – touches a wide range of points in organizational life, from supportive leadership practice through levels of mutual team support, from meaningful autonomy through job crafting (or, at the very least, the opportunity to work as a fully-rounded person rather than as a “job description”).
In essence, we are talking about whether an organization sees its people as individuals – with all that those people bring through the door on a day to day basis – or whether they seem them as crudely categorized assets, crushed into broad professional, occupational or pay graded definitions.
IMPORTANCE OF CONVERSATION
There is a school of thought that argues that organizations are constituted by the communication that takes place between their people.
Unfortunately, this view omits the significance of practice, process and procedure – but I am absolutely certain that meaningful and purposeful conversations between the widest range of people across an organization are the essential building blocks of effectiveness and continuous improvement.
This is the new model for appraisal that is being trialled at the trust at which I was working before my secondment. It hinges on four quarterly coaching conversations between managers and their people, each of which works on a 90-day retrospective and forward look – but from the perspective of the deliverables for the whole team in that period. The conversation then opens up the space for the staff member to talk about the way in which they – as a member of that team – will contribute to ensuring that the expectations are properly met.
Each conversation is simply recorded as an exchange on a sheet of A3, divided into four quadrants, one for each quarter. This makes the process less bureaucratized, thereby allowing managers and their people to focus more on the discussions of achievements and contributions rather than the completion of reams and reams of paperwork.
The foundational basis of all of this requires us to ensure that all of our managers, firstly, understand and can apply the GROW model, insofar as it provides a simple and quickly absorbed means of shifting conversations from directional to supportive exchanges, and, secondly, have an acquaintance with situational leadership. The latter serves to provide a direction of travel for management practice across the organization alongside an appreciation that, in certain circumstances, a manager might need to move from a coaching approach to one that is more expressly managerial. This might include a situation where a member of staff isn’t delivering effectively to meet the expectations of the team, despite the coaching efforts of the manager, and so may now be subject to explorations of capability.
Naturally, managers have sought further support, in terms of understanding this new approach and orientating themselves practically to its delivery. In particular, they wanted a steer as to what shape their hour-long conversation each quarter – referred to as a Progress Discussion – might take. In response to this, I generated the notion of A.E.I.O.U., which hopefully provided a quick and easy mnemonic as to how such as session might run without being too prescriptive.
Behind that abbreviation, there lies three streams of advice: first, what the focus of each of the five phases of the discussion might be; the sorts of questions that a manager might use at each stage in order to support and encourage discussion; and what might be the outcome from each element of the conversation.
Importantly, this was about giving managers a framework within which their individual coaching practice could develop and evolve rather providing a fixed formula.
Following on from this description of the pilot and to conclude the conference workshop, participants were asked to share with a pair a time in the past twelve months when their manager gave them truly positive feedback about something specific that they had done in their work…and how that had made them feel.
We then explored the Positivity Ratio, with participants asked to cluster to four poles in the room in terms of whether they experienced this type of positive feedback from their manager in their working lives:
80-100% of the time
50-80% of the time
20-50% of the time
Less than 20% of the time
Interestingly, the group very helpfully threw up two important issues around this type of thinking that I had not considered to date. First, it was observed that it is important to build resilience and reflective capability in staff so that they can be confident in their own abilities and able to celebrate the excellence of their own work, without reference to someone in a supervisory system.Implicit in the remark was that some people are more than able to be self-sufficient in this regard and do not necessarily crave the approbation of managers.
This strikes me as true, although I’m also minded that positive feedback should be the lifeblood of a humane organization – and so everyone, managers and peers, should be equipped and encouraged to offer that supportiveness as an intrinsic part of their way of being in an organizational context. I also suspect – although this is perhaps a self-serving conjecture – that ensuring that managers are able to offer positive feedback will encourage uptake of the practice across the whole workforce.
Second, a participant suggested that the exercise could have been made richer by inviting those taking part to then allocate themselves against the four poles in the room in respect to the positive feedback that they would like to receive from their managers. This struck me immediately as a sensible way of enriching the exercise – so I advised the participant there and then that I intended to pilfer this exceptional suggestion!
This rich discussion curtailed the final element of this section of the workshop, which was to have been to encourage all in attendance to think about their supervisory or management practice and honestly assess the amount of time they spend in their discussions with their staff or teams in giving genuinely positive feedback – and whether that needed to reviewed and adjusted.
In light of all of the above, it is apparent – of course – that the conversation needs to continue…and needs the widest range of voices and opinions in order to build upon it and construct a way of being in the workplace that supports the humanity of those with whom we work.
You are invited to use this space to add your own contribution to this discussion…and I thank you for that in advance.